Almanac

Viewpoint - April 30, 2014

Letter: Moving from memorizing the 'what' to understanding the 'why'

I read Jerry Hearn's recent letter in the Almanac and it inspired me to say my piece about the new "common core" state standards that are being introduced in our schools this year.

Jerry and I have served as members of Environmental Volunteers for many years, perhaps 30 or more. During that time, I became a fanatical proponent of hands-on learning, of the Socratic method of exploration of truth.

I watched very young children reason out the answer to complex questions such as why do you get the smell of rotten eggs when you apply hydrochloric acid to a rock? It was a fourth-grader who reasoned that the acid reaction indicated that the rock was composed of limestone, or calcium carbonate, as opposed to other types of rock. I waged that neither she nor I will ever forget that revelation.

The common core standards that the state Department of Education adopted in 2010 are designed to help children learn in just this way, through experimentation and questioning ... the way we all really love to learn. I have watched children say "Yuck" when presented with an owl pellet and then exclaim, "Wow, this is so cool!" once they have used their tweezers to extract the bones from the pellet and reassemble them to form the rat that the owl had eaten. This is the excitement of discovery and revelation, of true learning.

I wholeheartedly believe that the new common core standards will bring the excitement of learning back into our school classrooms, helping our children become life-long learners, thrilled by discovery and understanding.

They will learn critical thinking and be able to identify and claim their personal values as they defend their positions on things such as nuclear power, entitlements, arms agreements, and so on. We have for too long depended upon rote memorization as a measure of knowledge when all that really measures is the ability to memorize a fact.

Common core standards will produce deeper thinkers who will strengthen our democracy through the intelligence and knowledge they bring to the process.

We all need to support the implementation of this approach in our schools, and support our children and our teachers as they work to teach and learn in a style that fell out of favor 30 years ago and is coming back now.

Margot Rawlins

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